One evening a Native American told his grandson about a battle that goes on inside people.
He said, “My son, the battle is between two “wolves” inside us all. One is the Wolf of Suffering. It is anger, envy, jealousy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego. The other is the Wolf of Contentment. It is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion and faith.”
The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf wins?”
The grandfather replied, “The one you feed.”
One powerful way that we feed our wolves is by what we choose to think and tell ourselves. Ideally, we are mindful of what we are thinking so that we can deliberately choose to feed the Wolf of Contentment. However, we aren’t always aware of what we are telling ourselves. In fact, many of our thoughts are habits. And habits are by definition actions that we take unconsciously. They are automatic actions triggered by things that are happening around us or things that are happening internally like emotions or other thoughts.
An important step toward consistently feeding the good wolf is becoming aware of the opportunities to choose what we will think about. What wolf do we choose to feed?
This means that we must be able to observe our thoughts. Can you step back and observe yourself thinking? What are you thinking when you decide to skip your workout? What might you be thinking when you choose to eat another piece of cake? What is going on in your body? What emotion are you feeling? Tensions in your body or emotions can trigger your thoughts. Therefore, it is important to be aware of what is happening in your body, in your emotions, and in your mind. Any of these things may trigger an automatic thought that may feed either wolf. Taking control of your choices requires that you are aware of your opportunities to choose.
Once you are aware of what you are thinking and what triggers your feelings and thoughts, you will need to describe it for yourself. Yes, I amsuggesting that you talk to yourself. This has two benefits. First, it is a way to tell yourself what you have learned about yourself. It brings it fully to your awareness. Second, it helps you focus on what is happening right now and become clear about what you want to be happening. If you are feeling envy or jealously, what were the triggers? What thoughts are you having as you experience the feeling? If you are feeling compassion or generosity, what triggered the feeling? What are you thinking and feeling when you skip a gym session? What are you thinking and feeling when you finish a gym session? What are you thinking and feeling when you choose the fried chicken sandwich? What are you thinking and feeling when you choose the salad? Do you notice any patterns or recurring thoughts associated with either wolf?
We all have thought habits. Some good and some are not so good. Therefore, another step toward taking responsibility for which wolf you feed is to understand your own thought habits. What are you noticing about your thoughts? Are some triggered more frequently? Any patterns you see? Many people find a list of common thinking distortions helpful when they are trying to recognize their negative patterns. These distortions act as lenses that bend our thinking to feed the Wolf of Suffering.
Read through the list of cognitive distortions below. Which apply to your thinking habits?
- Mind reading: You assume that you know what people think without having sufficient evidence of their thoughts. My trainer thinks I am a loser. I can’t call him with questions.
- Fortune telling: You predict the future – that things will get worse or that there is danger ahead. I’ll never tone up. I can’t do THAT many reps! I’ll never really be physically fit. I’ll never give up fast food.
- Catastrophizing: You believe that what has happened or will happen will be so awful and unbearable that you won’t be able to stand it. I’ll get too sore…or worse, I’ll injure myself and won’t be able to work. All this fitness stuff will really make things worse.
- Labeling: You assign global negative traits to yourself and others. I’m no jock. What am I trying to prove? It’s just not my nature to be healthy and fit.
- Discounting positives: You claim that the positive accomplishments you or others attain are trivial. OK, so I hit my first goal. Big deal. I am still WAY short of where I want to be.
- Negative filter: You focus almost exclusively on the negatives and seldom notice the positives. There is nothing comfortable about being at the gym. Parking is a pain. I hate coming out into the cold all sweaty. Everyone else there is so far ahead of me.
- Overgeneralization: You perceive a global pattern of negatives on the basis of a single incident. I seem to fail at everything. Look at me. I haven’t walked in two days. I’ll never make my goals.
- Dichotomous thinking: You view events, or people, in all-or-nothing terms. I strained my shoulder; now I can’t work out at all. If I can’t do two sets of fifteen reps at this weight, I just won’t do any.
- Shoulds: You interpret events in terms of how things should be rather than simply focusing on what is. I SHOULD be able to get a workout in daily. So what if I do it. Its no big deal. I SHOULD eat vegetables and low fat foods. YUCK!
- Blaming: You focus on the other person as the source of your negative feelings and you refuse to take responsibility for changing yourself. Those people at the gym make me so self-conscious. They just won’t let me get to my workout. I can’t eat more healthy. My coworkers keep going for fast food at lunch.
- Unfair comparisons: You interpret events in terms of standards that are unrealistic by focusing primarily on others who do better than you and then judging yourself inferior in the comparison. My trainer can do so many more reps at higher weight than I can. I’ll never measure up.
- Regret orientation: You focus on the idea that you could have done better in the past, rather than on what you could do better now. I should have reached these fitness goals last year. What’s the use?
- Emotional reasoning: You let feelings guide your interpretation of reality. I feel hopeless and overwhelmed. I just don’t feel like having a salad or stopping by the gym on my way home. I don’t feel like moving let alone working out.
If you discover that you have a habit that is causing you to feed the Wolf of Suffering, the best way to change the habit is to be aware that your thinking is distorted and actively and deliberately correct the distortion. You build on your awareness and description to actively think differently…to starve the Wolf of Suffering and nurture the Wolf of Contentment.